It was a shock. They drove excitedly into the semester break, at first glance you might have thought: to summer camp. They had guitars slung around their necks and light dresses when they came to Oxford, Ohio from Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, many New Yorkers among them. 1,000 young Americans, almost all of them white, some of them Jewish, determined to make their country better and fairer. Now the students were confronted with its brutal reality. First in theory, then in practice.
In an introductory course, they were attuned to what to expect, and rules of conduct were written in. Always lock the windows and doors when driving, be sure to stay below the maximum speed – the police were just waiting for an excuse to arrest them. Fundamental issues were also debated: You are not here as do-gooders to save blacks. They practiced curling up when the police beat them, learned to shut up when they were yelled at, and let themselves be taken to jail without doing anything. Just don’t argue! Much too risky.
The legendary Mississippi Freedom Summer began on June 14, 1964 with the orientation week. From Ohio, the volunteers were sent to the front in Mississippi: to Ku Klux Klans who lynched blacks and set fire to churches, to “decent citizens” who hatefully defended their beneficiaries, to law enforcement officers who broke the law on the go. The fact that whites stayed overnight with blacks and went to demonstrate together with them was a tremendous provocation for them. The civil rights activists saw themselves as patriots, marching with flags in hand. Her opponents viewed the Freedom Summer as an “invasion of communist nigger friends.” No question about it, the young civil rights activists went to war. Unarmed. They practiced nonviolent resistance.
There had been quite a few civil rights campaigns, but never before such a concerted action. Racism dominated everyday life in every southern state, but nowhere was it as brutal as it was in Mississippi. (Alabama followed suit. Its governor Wallace promised “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”.) Blacks made up half of the population in Mississippi, but all official offices were held by whites. When the young James Meredith tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi as the first black man the year before, the governor personally blocked his way. President Kennedy had to send the National Guards down to Meredith’s protection, and two people were killed in the clashes.
Only a few black people dared to vote here. In the USA, the voting slip does not come in the mail; you have to register for it first. In Mississippi in 1964 it was an extremely difficult and risky thing to do. If all blacks had gone to the polls, this would have meant the end of white supremacy. So boulders were put in their way: applicants had to have gone to school for six years, prove that they could read and write, pass a test with crazy questions, explain constitutional clauses. The path of the candidates was often blocked by force.
One of the most important tasks of the volunteers in this steamy hot summer was to move from hut to hut – most blacks lived in the country in appalling circumstances – to explain, to encourage the electoral process.
A wide variety of civil rights organizations in Mississippi had already formed an alliance the year before. The main groups at the Freedom Summer were CORE, Congress of Racial Equality, and most importantly, SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC (pronounced “Ssnick”), founded in 1961 as a young alternative to Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was the most radical of the organizations.
They had almost no money. Even if Harry Belafonte, an important supporter of SNCC, kept organizing benefit concerts with friends like Frank Sinatra, the donations only covered the bare minimum. Permanent employees received less than the minimum wage, the volunteers had to finance their own living and also had to bring a few hundred dollars with them in order to be able to pay the bail themselves in the event of arrest.
Recruiting children from wealthy families was not just a practical, but a strategic decision: The organizers knew that only these students from the north would secure the attention of the national media, which deal with injustice and violence against “negroes”, such as they were called back then, didn’t care. They were soon brutally demonstrated how right they were.
Black Bob Moses, who had studied philosophy at Harvard, was the cool headmaster that summer, Mrs. Fanny Lou Hamer, as she always imagined, something like the mother of the company. The 46-year-old, who had not attended more than three school classes, and only sporadically, showed the students what to do against fear. Don’t scream, don’t run away and certainly don’t shoot, no: sing. “Oh Freedom!”, “We Shall Not be Moved”, “Go Tell It on the Mountain!”, “We Shall Overcome”. When the little round black woman opened her mouth, they all carried away. The spirituals welded the students together.
Fanny Lou Hamer was the youngest of 20 children. As a little girl she started picking cotton on a plantation. In 1962, a sermon by a pastor from SNCC encouraged them to register for election. The plantation owner then put her under pressure: Either she withdrew her registration or her job was lost. But Hamer didn’t want to go back.
Bob Moses sensed the strength of “the lady who sings the hymns” and won her over as an activist. On the way home from a workshop, she and her colleagues were arrested and beaten almost disabled in prison. But Fanny Lou Hamer could not be stopped. For them, as for many, being able to vote was the fundamental path to equality.
Voter registration was central, but not the only endeavor this summer. The civil rights activists founded Freedom Schools, Freedom Libraries and Freedom Clinics, set up community centers, played theaters, and lawyers held consultations. For the first time many blacks got an impression of what life in freedom could be like. At the schools, perhaps the happiest, freest place this summer, young and old not only learned to read and write, but also learned their own story, which did not take place in normal schools.
In the middle of the orientation phase in Ohio, the news that overshadowed the whole project burst; the film “Mississippi Burning” with Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe tells about it: Two friends, James Chaney, a black man from Mississippi, and Michael Schwerner, Jewish social worker from New York, both employees of CORE, as well as the volunteer Andrew Goodman, had disappeared. They had made their way to a flared church that was holding a civil rights assembly. As it turned out later, the sheriff arrested the three under the pretext of overspeeding, kept them in prison until it was dark, and then drove them into the arms of the Ku Klux Klan, who in the meantime prepared the trio’s murder would have. The excavator was ready to bury the bodies.
Schwerner’s young wife Rita, also a CORE employee, was one of the tutors in the introductory workshop in Ohio. The fact that the case made such headlines and prompted the President of the United States to send the FBI and sailors to look for the bodies because two white people were there: this form of racism still outrages Rita Bender, as she is called today. For 44 days they searched and poked in the swamps. Hardly anyone was interested in the black victims of lynching who were discovered by chance.
It was a grueling, exciting, not a romantic summer. Although, yes, also because there were some love affairs between blacks and whites that were viewed by both sides as extremely ambivalent. Attacks did not only come from outside, there were also tensions within the movement. Black civil rights activists felt they were being patronized by some white volunteers and were worried about being ousted. The young students, on the other hand, found it difficult to deal with the submissiveness of the intimidated rural population. In her clever book “Freedom Summer”, Sally Belfrage tells of such strange experiences: that the landlord only sat down with her at the table when she had expressly asked him to do so a few times. The fact that the 16-year-old son always looked at the floor when he talked to her, he was so stubbornly sworn not to look at white women. That could be life-threatening in Mississippi.
While the search for the missing was still going on, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in Washington on July 2, which put an end to discrimination in public places. At least in the theory of the law. The practice was different. Sally Belfrage says that in the town where she worked at the Freedom Library, the water was immediately drained from the swimming pools so that whites just didn’t have to swim with blacks. Many parks and zoos have also been closed.
On August 4, the bodies of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were found. The families wanted to bury their children side by side, but that was not allowed: apartheid prevailed even in cemeteries.
A few days later the climax of the Freedom Summer took place, but not in the south, but in Atlantic City. The activists had won 60,000 members for their newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. So they moved to the Democratic Congress, at which Lyndon B. Johnson was to be named as a presidential candidate. The civil rights activists wanted to challenge the official, all-white delegation from Mississippi, which would not allow blacks. Johnson was frightened: what if the representatives of all southern states abandoned him?
He arranged a compromise: the MFDP should get two extraordinary seats. Among those who testified before the committee to review the mandate was Rita Schwerner, the young widow. She was seated next to Fanny Lou Hamer, who made her grand appearance on August 22nd as deputy party leader. She told her story in front of the television cameras, venting her anger about injustice and inhumanity.
President Johnson called a rush press conference to lure the television crews away, but it was too late by then. The whole nation had heard the cotton picker read the riot act on her country with her powerful speech, encountering the discrepancy between what America wanted and should be and what it was. “Is this America, the land of the free, the home of the brave ?!” she shouted at her compatriots.
For civil rights activists, the party congress was the bitter end of a hopeful summer. It finally made it clear to them that in case of doubt they could expect nothing more than handouts from official politics. The following year, Malcolm X was shot and the Watts riot broke out with 34 dead. SNCC soon abandoned the idea of togetherness and nonviolent resistance, excluding whites and joining the militant Black Panthers.
But the wheel couldn’t be turned back. The following year, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which paved the way for all citizens to vote. At the next party congress to nominate the presidential candidate, all-white delegations were no longer allowed. And many veterans of the summer carried what they had learned in Mississippi elsewhere: in the women’s movement or in the student revolution that began a few months later in Berkeley.